the state of the arts

On February 22, 2011 the claque hosted a launch event at 3LD in lower Manhattan. Fifty of the of our favorite artists and friends came out to support us and learn more about what we are planning to do. To contextualize our next steps, I began the evening with a speech on the State of the Arts. Below is that speech.

video of the state of the arts address here.

text of the state of the arts address:

Thank you all for coming out this evening and moreover, thank you for supporting us in this new adventure.

Tonight we will talk to you about the claque, what that is, our values, goals, what we plan to do and why. But before we go into that, I’d like to take a moment to talk about the current state of the arts and what that means for those of us in this room and for the claque.

So, this is what I hear.

I hear for sometime now that our country has been moving into another stage of culture wars. Over the last few months and years we’ve seen politicians, pundits and interest groups whipped into frenzies, while politicizing artistic expression. Institutions and artists have been making some tough decisions in reaction, as ideals from politics and religion seep into our realm of influence, which they often do.

I hear that even as the economic crisis winds down we will continue to feel a new type of pain. Funding has slowed or dried. Consumers tightening their belts are choosing with more discretion where they will be buying tickets or donating money. Endowments and foundations got hit hard in the market, state governments slashed funding with decreases in tax revenue and corporations focused on their bottom lines. These problems will not disappear any time soon. In some cases, foundations will take years to recoup and roll-off their losses and the corporate landscape has seen so much change that we can only expect this to be the new norm.

Even more daunting is our government’s response to the arts.   As corporations are meant to be the engine of our society, government, in turn, is meant to be the protector.  But, with 44 states facing budget deficits and a growing populist rejection of tax increases, state governments are slashing arts funding. Most state arts commissions make up less than a percent of a states’ budget, but they are highly visible, occasionally controversial programs that win points with some when cut. There are at least five states that have proposed completely eliminating their arts funding, Texas, Washington, Arizona, South Carolina, with Kansas already making the cut. And when the state cuts their funding it makes itself ineligible for NEA support.

I also hear in the last few weeks that cuts have been proposed for the NEA, PBS and NPR, as they often are, forcing a debate on the value of the arts and media which nearly always paints these organizations as solely catering to and expressing the views of liberals and elites.

Getting even closer to home, as I’m sure all of you know, during a panel at Arena Stage a few weeks ago, I hear that Rocco Landesman, head of the NEA said of theatre there was too much supply and not enough demand.  To quote: “you can either increase demand or decrease supply.”  Some took this as a call for the dismantlement of smaller companies, while others agreed that there needs to be some kind of change, acknowledging a broken system.

But one thing is certain: the last few weeks have seen this discussion explode very publically in our industry. No matter your opinion: it is extremely rare for our community to have such a vibrant passionate public discourse. Unfortunately for theatre, most of the media are more interested in reporting on the trials and tribulations of Spider Man rather than the web of troubles entangling the greater art form.

And if we take a moment and step back, to look at the world I hear we inherited, the world we are helping to shape and create, we get a broader picture of a bigger problem. We can see a culture that has everything at its fingertips and expects it all to be available at any given moment. We live in a reactionary culture of now, glued to our computers and phones, without the patience to keep the television on one channel or finish a book. There are generations graduating from college unable to find decent paying jobs, going back to grad school, getting out and still unable to find decent paying jobs. Every year you’ll read countless articles with the ominous headline Theatre is Dead, Publishing is Dead, Recording is Dead, Reading is Dead, Theatre is Dead, Theatre is Dead.

The world is changing, the rest are adapting. What about us?

That’s what I hear.

And why. Why are we coming to you now saying that we are going to start a company in this climate?

Because, this is what I know.

A room full of people. Lucky enough to have the inexplicable ability to understand and interpret the human experience. This ability to create art. What a wonderful thing. What a simple thing. To be an artist.

I know that in every conversation I have with artists old and young, experienced or not, there is a hunger and a drive to push harder and be better. We all want what is  being discussed more and more. A better world in the arts. A better world because of the arts.

I know that in every blog I read and in every conversation I have, the common theme is not self advancement. It is “how can I help” or “what I can do to make this happen” or “how can we do it better”. We are all looking forward in advancing our art form and second on advancing ourselves..

Another thing I know. Theatre is not dead. Let me say that again. Theatre is not dead. This thing that we do, like how we like to live, is in the moment. An art that takes all of us to work together to create, and an audience to engage. Telling a story is the oldest art form, no matter if it is an emotional arc or a complex narrative. We ache when it’s done poorly because we know how wonderful it is when it’s done well. And when it is done well, we have a vibrant transformative experience. Something that only happens once, can only happen once and maybe, just maybe you were lucky enough to experience it.

And I know who else knows that, even if they don’t know why. Every year there is an onslaught of new faces to New York, LA, Chicago and every other metropolitan area in this country of recent undergrads who want to be involved in what we do. They are curious, willing, full of energy and wanting to be part of something bigger than themselves. They may not know what it is or how to articulate it, but they are here.

I know the hunger we see coming out of the new generation is shared with our peers in other cities. New York has a problem communicating with the rest of the country and the rest of the country has a problem communicating with New York. We need each other more now than ever to share ideas and hold each other up in the spotlight. Although a limited conversation is already happening, everyone is hungry for more access.

I know that we are – generationally – in an extremely exciting place. With the difficulties that we face, we have all found multiple ways of supporting ourselves, becoming skilled in different areas of our field. We came here to be writers, actors, designers, directors and we’ve learned to survive. We’ve learned to write grants, administrate the arts, design websites and produce. We have become the generation of the multi-versed. Transcending medium. The multi-versed, skilled in many areas, with our expertise overlapping when we sit at a table together, a collective force of skill and networks, able and willing, equally excited to learn from the past and try something new.

That is what I hear and that is what I know.

What do we do with that?

This room represents a sustained glow of hope in a rather grimly painted picture. We have inherited a changing world, and those Challenges of Change have been chipping away at our artistic infrastructure, and as we face the tangible threats of further economic difficulties and impending culture wars, it is time for a tactical change: that we engage rather than maintain business as usual.

What we need now is a call to action.

Not to react to the politicized culture, but to represent our art with more vigor and passion. Not only to be able to justify why we deserve funding by citing numbers and statistics and making emotional appeals to how the arts make the world better. We need to make a concentrated effort to strengthen the networks of the arts, spanning generations, geographical locations, levels of experience and education. It’s time that we not only say we are worth funding but show people why we are worth funding

We start here, with our peers. The conversation already exists. It is happening every day in Universities, rehearsal rooms, on the web. What we talk about excites us, it motivates us and pushes us to be better at what we do. In our industry which is often siloed, sometimes competitive, and always difficult to break into, it is time to open the conversation. Taking time with each other is that first small important step, with a constant reflection on what we are doing while we are doing it and post-mortems on how to do it better. And while we get caught up in the exciting pace of production and the drama of the moment, now it is more important to hold ourselves and each other to the highest possible standards.

With the wealth of excitement rippling through the emerging artists and new comers to our industry, the active conversation needs to begin to involve this generation in a more tangible way, giving a voice, a means to teach and learn generationally through public discourse. Engage this group, and you’ll create your demand.  Create demand, and you’ll justify your supply.

We need to stop excusing what we do as a dead art form and embrace its vibrancy, becoming advocates and custodians of the form as those who have done so in the past. Each of us a representative, with differing opinions, of course, but daring to push the discussion.

As a class of artist who are multi-talented, multi-versed, continuing and expanding the discussion on the national stage, finding ways using new technology to share those ideas is paramount. With this increase in discourse, we can do what artists are good at, pushing innovation and pushing it in more creative ways. Sharing our ideas will not only help in new ways of doing things, but also improve in that which we’ve been doing for centuries as we discuss, share and teach, across generations and through-out different regions. Most of us come from places other than here. Bring the conversations home, take them with you when you travel. Be a diplomat of you profession.

And while we begin to share more, pushing ourselves and each other to be arbiters of the arts, it is time for us to show the world something else. Something fun. It’s time for us to show the world how sexy it is to do what we do. Our actors are hot, our writers are dangerous our designers are savvy and we all dress well.  Well, some of us, anyway.  We have the smarts of academics, the looks of movie stars, can talk like television writers (but with depth) while living every moment like we’re rock stars. And why not? We reflect our art form in everyway. Hot, dangerous and savvy. We need to be rock stars of our form. Better than rock stars.  Rock stars with something to prove.  Rock stars with a cause.  (Let’s all be Bono.)

And although this push for advocacy is already happening, by those in this room and beyond, we, as a cultural community, need to push it more and push it harder and do it better and publically. Push against the perception that art is purely the pursuit of entertainment.

In our own small way, the claque would like to help.

Starting in our small corner of the world, the first step is building a strong network, You, consisting of some of the best emerging, established, new artists and companies we know. Those who want to do it better and build it stronger.

And as we build this stellar network of people, we will mirror that in our programming. Not only will the claque focus on producing works with the best ingredients, which is everyone’s hope and dream, but we will supplement the striving for excellence by providing continued learning in workshops, active discussion through an insiders’ interview series, retreats throughout the year to improve what we do as a company and foster new works, adaptive approaches to play development, an apprentice program to capture and develop the next generation, while establishing partnerships with other companies to push innovation and collaboration and much more.

And these are just a few steps, this year, in moving the claque forward in what will take us years to achieve. Every year we will update you on how we are doing and what we will be doing next. This will only be a small part of what we all need to change in order to influence how our art form is perceived and received in the future. It starts with you, with your peers. We will encourage, excite and engage. We’ll be creating an environment to foster excellence and innovation under a pretense of non-competitive openness while adapting to the situation at hand. In other words, we are here to push you to do your best, we are creating a network to do the same. Personally I will push you harder than anyone else, ask more from you and expect the world from you. I will ask you to do the same of me. Holding each other to the highest of standards. And while we exist in the world of working three jobs in order to be an artist, we’ll all have trouble making good on these expectations, but we’ll do our best to realize a better world for our art form and for ourselves. What we are doing has been done before and will be done again. We are here to support you, to realize a common dream. I’d like to work with you. Thank you.

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